Toby’s Touches Inspire “Letters Home”

“The details are not the details, they make the design.”

Charles Eames was correct. The right setting is everything.

Take the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Enter I.M. Pei’s modernist creation from the street, and you begin your visit in a dramatic triangular skylit atrium. Or take the underground concourse to the wing from the museum’s West Building, guided by an artistic installation of thousands of LED lights running along the dark, 200-foot-long walls, ending with a sensational waterwall at the entrance to the Cascade Café. 

I recalled how effective details can be when I discovered striking features in an impressive space much closer to home, at the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.

Founded in 1981, the society collects and preserves stories, documents, photographs and artifacts from Jewish central Ohio. To complement its extensive research archive — located in a building that also houses the Jewish Federation of Columbus and the Columbus Jewish Foundation — the society opened a permanent exhibit space on the ground floor of the building in December 2015.

Our friend Toby Brief, curator of the society’s historical collection, gave us a tour of this appealing, detail-oriented space recently. There are Toby touches everywhere, from her self-designed tidy corner cubbies to the peddler’s cart logo she developed for a previous exhibit, recalling the profession of choice for early Jewish immigrants.

A photographic timeline at the gallery entrance going back to 1830 is the space’s only permanent installation. And it’s a striking one, thanks to three-dimensional features, shades of grey, and the teal accent color the society chose for its branding.

The timeline presents the story of the earliest Jewish settlers in central Ohio, beginning with the first wave of Jewish immigration to the United States from Germany between 1830 and 1880, followed by Jews from Russia and eastern Europe from 1880 to the 1920s, and continuing through the recent past.

Meet Max and Sam Gundersheimer, twin boys born in 1864, who were among the earliest Jewish children in Columbus. As adults, they owned a clothing store at the corner of Rich and High Streets.

Recall Glick’s Furniture, one of central Ohio’s Jewish-owned businesses. And discover Jewish landmarks, such as the Schonthal Center, a mansion at 555 E. Rich St. that was converted to a community center. The 571 Shop, located at 571 E. Rich St., helped immigrant women adjust to life in the United States and provided business training and experience. A project of the National Council of Jewish Women during the 1930s and 1940s, the shop sold pastries, bread, clothing and other items, all made by the women.

Follow the vertically oriented tile flooring (another Toby touch) into the gallery space, which presents temporary rotating exhibits. For example, a recent exhibit employed the society’s large collection of hats, hat boxes and photographs of women wearing hats to illustrate the philanthropic work of Jewish women in central Ohio.

“1918 – Central Ohio Jews and the World War” is currently on view, through December 15, 2018. You can imagine my excitement when I learned about this unique look at one of my favorite fascinations!

Toby shared several special things with us, but the three pristine uniforms on display are rightly the stars of the show. This winter Army uniform and wool campaign hat were worn by Private Harry Kurchik of Lancaster, Ohio, who served in Cl. L. 311th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Infantry Division in France. Nicknamed the “Lightning Division” by the French, who said they came in like a bolt of lightning, leaving the field blood red, the division adopted a lightning bolt as their shoulder insignia.

Kurchik’s summer Army uniform jacket is paired with wool pants, a backpack, a gas mask pouch, and an ammunition belt, all on loan from another society supporter. A handwritten description of the troop’s movements was found in Kurchik’s uniform pocket.  A representation of it is displayed next to an artifact I hadn’t seen before — a gas attack alarm rattle.

The exhibit also includes a Navy uniform worn by Julius Cohen, who trained in Norfolk, Virginia, then served on training ships in Boston. Cohen served in the Navy from January 1917 to January 1920.

Every exhibit benefits from a mascot, and this one is perfect! This little doughboy is Toby’s father, Dr. B.J. Brief.

There were at least 261 local Jewish men serving in the United States military during World War I. More than 100 Jewish soldiers from central Ohio were sent to fight in Europe. Some saw action in France, Belgium, Italy and Russia. Others served closer to home, at Chillicothe’s Camp Sherman. Their names are strikingly presented on a wall at the end of the gallery.

While at war, Jewish soldiers practiced their religion with the aid of the Jewish Welfare Board, as books of Psalms on display attest. Other unique artifacts on display include items from Lt. Louis Herskowitz, who was the coroner of Franklin County, Ohio when he was called to serve as a physician at Camp Oglethorpe, Georgia. On Sunday, July 1 at 2:00 pm, Dr. Ian Valerio of The Ohio State University will present “Wounded Warriors – 1918 and 2018” at the society.

Here at home, Jewish women participated in relief work, supporting soldiers in training camps by writing letters and providing entertainment for them; helping new Jewish immigrants; and raising money for poor Palestinians through organizations like Hadassah and the Columbus Council of Jewish Women. They also raised funds for the war effort through Liberty Bond drives, prepared bandages for soldiers, and knit them socks. “Support Your Boys: How Knitters Helped the Army,” a program led by Andrea Panzica of 614 Knit Studio, is planned.

One of the most memorable parts of the exhibit are the letters David Pastor wrote to his cousin and sweetheart, Anna Pastor, during his time at Camp Sherman. Besides describing life at camp, the letters document a family casualty from the 1918 influenza epidemic. Over 350 of the Pastors’ letters were discovered in a yard sale; they were donated to the society to be preserved because of their valuable Jewish content. The couple later married and lived in Bexley. David owned Standard Dry Cleaning Company until his death in 1955; Anna passed away in 1985.

Next Wednesday, May 30, the society is presenting “Letters Home,” a theatrical production telling the story of Jewish central Ohio World War I veterans in their own words, from letters they wrote to their families and friends. The 8:00 p.m. performance will take place in the Roth-Resler Theater of the Jewish Center, located at 1125 College Avenue in Columbus. Click here for tickets.

Watch Toby talk more about these letters on this recent episode of WOSU’s “Columbus Neighborhoods.”

For more on the history of Jews in central Ohio, read Jews and Judaism in a Midwestern Community: Columbus, Ohio, 1840-1975, by Marc Lee Raphael.

Located at 1175 College Avenue, the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Historical Collection is open Monday through Friday from 10 to 3:30, the first Sunday of each month (except holidays), and by appointment. Archives offices are open Tuesday through Thursday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. The society welcomes new acquisitions documenting central Ohio Jews.

This entry was posted in Columbus, History, Museums. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Toby’s Touches Inspire “Letters Home”

  1. Toby says:

    Oh my! This is a lovely piece! You caught everything about the space and the exhibit. it’s wonderful. Thanks for sending this out to the world.
    Hope the anniversary weekend was great

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